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University level massage therapy studies

graduationI love nurses. I’m related to some great nurses. I’ve had a local nurse practitioner refer her patients to me for massage. I have a friend who has a master’s degree in nursing. I know LPNs, RNs, BSNs, MSNs. The only thing that’s missing from my list is someone with a Ph.D. in nursing. I need to get on that.

Nurses come in all flavors. Nurses are the people in your family doctor’s office who chat with you on the phone, weigh you (and never makes you feel bad if you’ve gained a few since your last visit), and who know all the details of your life and your family. Nurses are the people who supervise all of the technicians in a surgical suite, making sure all the equipment is in place, making sure the patient is prepped and making sure everything runs smoothly. Nurses are the people who sit in an intensive care room charting every med, every reading, every change, and every observation while keeping the family updated on how the patient is doing. There are nurse practitioners who are allowed to prescribe meds, there are nursing researchers who study how to make nursing more effective for the patient.

Nursing programs run from short programs of study at community colleges all the way up to doctoral level degrees. If you want to study nursing, it’s up to you to decide how far to go.

Massage therapy doesn’t have that

Recently, on Facebook, a massage therapist asked if there was any college that offered a bachelor’s degree in massage. Sadly, the answer was no. If this MT wants to continue her education, she’ll have to study another subject; perhaps physical therapy or kinesiology or biology, but not massage.

And that makes me very sad

You became a massage therapist because you love massage, not because you love physical therapy. But if you have a hankering to go back to school and get a degree, you don’t get to study what you love. You’re stuck compromising and studying something kinda closely related.

What if there was a university level study of massage therapy?

That’s the question that was discussed this week in Seattle. Ravensara Travillian Ph.D. LMP, Christoper Moyer Ph.D., and Laura Allen LMT spent the evening of December 9th discussing what advanced education would look like and what it would do for the profession and our communities.

Ravensara is a Licensed Massage Practitioner (we don’t get to use the word therapist in WA; it’s a thing) since 1992 and has recently been working closely with underserved populations, particularly refugees and military veterans. We have a huge military base here with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, so this is a group of people that are near and dear to our hearts.

Christopher is a psychological scientist who studies when, for whom, and by what mechanisms massage therapy, the manual manipulation of soft tissue intended to promote health, wellness, and performance, can be beneficial. He has published several papers on the effects of massage and a textbook on integrating massage research into your practice.

Laura is a massage therapist, clinic owner, author and massage educator. She blogs extensively on the state of the profession, the organizations in the profession, and laws affecting the profession.

An Advanced Certificate, NOT a new Requirement

All 3 speakers emphasized that they are discussing an advanced certificate, not new regulations or requirements for initial licensing. This education is not a replacement for our current massage curriculum but is an add-on for those who have already completed basic massage education.

In the state of Washington, Licensed Massage Practitioners (LMP) are allowed to bill insurance and more than half of the LMPs in this state do bill insurance of some sort. In other states, this isn’t the case, but I would predict that more and more therapists will bill insurance after the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented. No one at the event suggested that all massage therapists should be required to bill insurance, but for those that do, the advanced certificate could prove beneficial.

What can we gain from an advanced certificate program?

Christopher Moyer started the evening off by discussing the 3 benefits to be gained by an advanced certificate program.

1 – Research

In particular, studying the mechanisms of massage and the outcomes. How does massage work? When does it work? What works?

2 – Education

As in most fields of study, advanced education and research trickles down throughout the profession. Everyone gets to benefit. We should also see an increase in critical thinking skills (yes, it’s a skill, not a talent) as this will be part of the curriculum. We’ll also be able to leverage the tools and technology available in a university setting. Access to laboratories, libraries, and equipment is incredibly valuable.

3 – Service to the Community

We don’t live or work in a vacuum and the advanced certificate program will help deliver massage to populations in need, such as veterans, refugees, and caregivers.

What the advanced certificate program WON’T do

Each of the speakers emphasized the following and I want to make sure it gets adequate space here:

  • It won’t dehumanize massage. ”We appreciate the connection and humanity”
  • It won’t enforce any belief systems on the massage profession
  • It won’t quash individual freedoms
  • It isn’t trying to create ‘group-think’

The speakers and the program all respect the unique benefits of massage that aren’t in any other profession.

What are other countries doing?

We were fortunate to have Bodhi Haraldsson attend. Bodhi is the Research Director at the Massage Therapists Association of British Columbia and provided a lot of insight into the state of the profession in British Columbia and Ontario. He was also interested in whether this program would be offering a Master’s level degree. Currently, the massage program in British columbia is far greater than that required by any state in the US. New Zealand currently has a Bachelors program available for massage. So there is an interest, at least internationally, in an advanced degree program for massage therapy.

When asked if she would be pursuing an advanced degree program, Ravensara felt that it would be too large a step at this point. The logistics and overhead associated with a degree program in an accredited university are beyond the scope of the project, at this time. In the future, it is certainly a possibility. At the moment, an advanced certificate is more realistic and acheivable.

The state of the industry in the US

There are currently about 250,00-300,000 massage therapists in the US. Interesting fact: Ohio was the first state to license massage therapy and did so in 1916! There are still 6 states which don’t license massage therapy, but this is still a huge improvement since I started practice in 2006. Of those 44 states that license massage, not all of them license it as a health care provider.

The FSMTB did a survey of MTs and the results are jawdropping:

61% don’t earn enough money to support their family and have to take a second job

Salaries are depressing:

  • 11% earn less than $10k/year
  • 18% earn less than $15k/year
  • 19% earn between $20k-$30k/year
  • 6% earn between $40k-$50k/year
  • 2% earn more than $60k/year

By contrast, Bodhi reported that more than 50% MTs in BC and Ontario earn more than $40k after taxes, versus our 8%. That’s right, Canadian MTs actually make a good living. He attributes this to the heavy dependence on insurance income.

Are we really a profession that dislikes higher education?

If you read any of the flame wars on Facebook, you would come away with the impression that the majority of massage therapists aren’t interested in higher education. The numbers, however, tell a different story.

34% of MTs have had some college

  • 19% have Associate degree
  • 27% have Bachelor’s degree
  • 9% have Master’s degree
  • 2% have Ph.D.

Opinions & Conclusions

Well, that’s over 1200 words of some of my notes from the meeting. The video recording will be online and I’ll post a link to it here when it’s available so you can see the whole thing. I took 6 pages of notes and this blog post, at nearly 2000 words, is only scratching the surface of what we discussed.

What follows below are my opinions.

This is worth further study.

There are a lot of details to attend to, but there seems like plenty of upside and I’d like to see Ravensara continue her work here.

Concerns from the educators, Jill Berkana founder of Berkana Institute for Massage Therapy and Annie LaCroix the founder of Columbia River Institute of Massage, and myself (I teach at Bodymechanics School of Myotherapy and Massage) all asked questions regarding teaching teachers to prepare students for an advanced certification. The other concern is that there is a big discrepancy in educational requirements from state to state, not just in the number of hours but in how those hours are apportioned between subjects. This means there might have to be some remedial courses made available to make sure all students coming into the program are properly prepared.

This is not as big a deal as it seems. Most universities and colleges have this problem with their incoming students and provide classes to backfill knowledge gaps. No one discussed changing the curriculums of massage programs being taught, so don’t freak out. We’re talking about making courses available in the program that would fill in those gaps.

There is a desire for an advanced study program

I see people ask this on social media and I get asked on a regular basis. There are always people who are infinitely curious about a subject and want to explore it in greater and greater depth. Their study benefits all of us as they uncover new information, techniques, and methods. That does not obligate any or all of us to follow them on that journey. I’ve worked with a lot of Ph.D. and I’ve never felt the urge to attempt that level of study.  Until we create a program of advanced study within massage, we are forcing those people into fields of study that are close, but no cigar, as they say.

This could expand employment opportunities

Not all massage therapists want to be entrepreneurs. Many of them want to work for someone else. If this is you, your employment choices really boil down to: working for a chiropractor, working for a spa, working for a chain, or working in a small clinic. Yes, there are a statistically small number of jobs outside of those 4 buckets, but they are very few and very far between.

Advanced certification could open up doors for us to work in other health care venues, where massage therapists are the exception, rather than the rule. Hospice, hospitals, long term care facilities, substance abuse programs, mental health facilities, health care cooperatives, veterans hospitals, and many many more. Massage research shows how beneficial our work is to so many people who cannot access it either because they cannot travel to massage or because it would cause a financial hardship.

The advanced certification plus the research that will be done and published by the program could make employment opportunities in these venues more available to massage therapists. More jobs plus more people being treated can only be a good thing.

I expect to get a lot of blowback

Given the tone of ‘discussions’ on social media, I expect a pretty fair amount of hatred to head my way. There seems to be a number of people in the profession who actively resist any new research information, any further education, any call for honest and open discussion about what we do and why/how it works. That makes me incredibly sad. Massage is a profound form of therapy and I want to see the profession grow and reach more people. That’s why I support this effort into investigating an advanced certificate program in a university setting.

I would like to open this up for discussion. Ravensara has been very transparent in the information she is gathering and the work she is doing. What questions do you think need to be answered? What is your opinion? There’s the comment section below, so please use it.

* photo by Rennet Stowe

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